It holds the title of first airliner to be built with fly-by-wire systems—a groundbreaking technology that finds pilots inputting commands that are then interpreted by flight control computers (and transmitted to flight control surfaces). The Airbus A320 family— which is made up of short- to medium-range, narrow-body, commercial passenger twin-engine jet airliners—has become one of the world’s most popular passenger jets since it first hit the skies back in 1984.
With demand for its passenger aircraft on the rise, particularly in North America, Airbus has built a $600 million factory to assemble airplanes in in Mobile, Alabama and is delivering four aircraft a month from the 3-year-old facility.
When the facility opened, the company’s logistics plan for receiving components consisted of ships from Hamburg, Germany docking in Mobile Bay and off-loading their cargo, which consists of vertical and horizontal tail planes, wings, and the front and rear fuselage. Loaded onto flatbed trucks, the pieces were then driven to Brookley Field, a decommissioned Air Force Base that has become a hub of aerospace manufacturing, about four miles from the harbor.
Bundling Airplane Components on the Waterways
As the facility grew, a new way of transporting and receiving the parts was planned. To achieve its production goals, and get its passenger jets into its customers’ hands faster and more efficiently, Airbus worked closely with logistics provider DB Schenker to develop a system that would allow it to “bundle” those components and then get them to the assembly line via an area waterway (versus having to load them onto trucks).
This would all have to happen in the most logistically-efficient manner possible, and on a monthly basis. Using a new roll-on/roll-off terminal, barge, and newly-dredged section of river, Airbus would be able to use larger vessels to transfer the huge components by water.
Working with local contractors, DB Schenker also built a new pier (at the production plant) and constructed a new airplane hangar, both of which are enabling just-in-time delivery and use of the airplane parts. When the components for four complete airplanes arrive onsite every month, for example, three of them can be stored in the hangar while one airplane is immediately put into the final assembly process.
The original logistics process had been in place for three years and involved a lower vessel and a crane (for placing the aircraft components onto the vessel). Changing over to a roll-on, roll-off arrangement meant would have to Airbus switch over to using trailers or trolleys to enter—and then load or unload—the vessel.
Proximity to the Port of Mobile was another challenge, namely because the roll-on, roll-off facility is located close to the city center. To transport its huge components from the boat to the factory, Airbus needed to move them through the city. “That just wasn’t possible,” says Thierry Ramplou, Airbus Project Manager, “so when DB Schenker demonstrated its proposed barging solution, it was clear that this would be the most appropriate solution.”
Leveraging the Power of Good Logistics
Tanguy Largeau, DB Schenker’s Head of Vertical Market Aerospace Americas, says the logistics provider took an innovative “problem-resolution” approach to Airbus’ issues. Borrowing a page from the manufacturer’s European operations, the logistics provider came up with a way to organize the transportation via waterway. That plan would include a fully-refurbished dock and pier, and a new hangar.
“We designed the solution and organized the project,” says Largeau, who adds that DB Schenker coordinated with local authorities, service providers, and Airbus itself to bring the multifaceted project to fruition. “This project, which involved multiple divisions across DB Schenker, is a tribute to the entrepreneurial nature of our organization,” says Michael L. Schoenfeld, Senior Vice President and Head of Contract Logistics for Schenker Logistics.
“We were presented with a business problem and we funneled pockets of expertise across multiple divisions of our organization and found a way to a better solution,” Schoenfeld continues. “We didn’t let any internal or external barriers stand in the way, which shows how we can link various elements together while also providing new ideas and innovations to the equation.”
A Successful First Run
In May, Airbus used the new logistics setup for a shipment of four airplanes. It’s now prepping another international shipment for mid-June. Dr. Klaus Fischer, an Airbus Manager and Project Leader, says the multipronged solution developed by DB Schenker is already exceeding the manufacturer’s expectations.
“Changing a working system that’s already running and that everyone is used to isn’t easy. Plus, we don’t just have ‘dummy’ components lying around, so we couldn’t test the new system out first,” says Fischer, whose team completed a thorough selection process before awarding DB Schenker the contract. “In the end, we knew DB Schenker would be able to set up this new transport concept in a way that truly met our needs.”
Schoenfeld says the innovative concept is helping Airbus maximize area waterways, increase production, and utilize existing infrastructure that included a dock that was built and used during World War II.
“Working with Airbus, the local authorities, and numerous local providers, we designed the solution, organized the project, and orchestrated it in a way that solved Airbus’ key challenges,” says Schoenfeld. “The first run with the new system was flawless.”
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